Metro Weekly

Lena Waithe on ‘Twenties,’ dealing with criticism, and finding balance in dating

Driving her own film and television renaissance, Twenties creator Lena Waithe keeps her eyes on the prize of posterity

Lena Waithe -- Photo: Shayan Asgharnia
Lena Waithe — Photo: Shayan Asgharnia

For two seasons and counting, Lena Waithe’s saucy BET comedy Twenties has encapsulated a layered tale of young, Black creatives chasing Hollywood dreams while juggling complicated love lives.

Best friends Hattie, Nia, and Marie — a writer, an actress, and a studio exec — aren’t so different from previous generations of hopefuls in L.A. who have sought their fortunes among backlots and soundstages. But the show breathes new life into big dreams with fresh portrayals of what it means to be, like Marie, an ambitious, straight professional engaged to a man who’s just beginning to accept his bisexuality. Or, in the case of lesbian Hattie, how to navigate the exceedingly tricky waters of secretly dating your boss and valued mentor.

To what degree Hattie’s reality might reflect or reference the life of series creator and executive producer Waithe can’t be easily measured. Although the show, which premiered in March 2020, was promoted as a semi-autobiographical spin on Waithe’s industry experiences, her path and the character’s have decidedly diverged. The two could never have been exactly the same, says Waithe, because Hattie, portrayed by out newcomer Jojo T. Gibbs, is “experiencing a Hollywood that I didn’t. Her experience has to be completely different from mine, because she came into the business later than I did.”

Putting it more succinctly, “Hattie is a character, and we have to have fun with her,” Waithe insists, adding, “She’s messy and she’s flawed, and she’s funny. And she just creates a lot of great stories for us.” Hattie is, of course, also a great story unto herself, as perhaps the only masculine-presenting, Black lesbian character to anchor a television series. That is, she was the only one, until Master of None returned this past summer with its surprise season three, Moments in Love.

Pivoting from the misadventures of Aziz Ansari’s comically downtrodden Dev Shah to a detailed dramedy centered on Waithe’s formerly supporting character Denise, Moments chronicled a tumultuous year of marriage for Denise and her new wife Alicia, played by Naomi Ackie. Waithe and Ansari co-wrote each episode, with Ansari directing and remaining off-camera, save for two brief (and hilarious) cameo appearances.

As a follow-up to Waithe’s Emmy-winning work on the classic Master of None coming-out episode, “Thanksgiving,” her writing and performance on Moments in Love represent an impressive evolution. And the Chicago native plans to keep evolving — whether writing and producing thought-provoking films like the 2019 hit Queen & Slim, or creating buzzy series like The Chi and Them: Covenant. Having just signed an exclusive deal with Warner Bros. Television Group, Waithe and her Hillman Grad Productions are poised to create all manner of content — though she readily confesses she sees no need to do it all herself.

Asked about possibly directing episodes of Twenties, Waithe responds quickly. “Absolutely not, no desire. There’s this weird thing of like, ‘Oh, you should do this.’ [But] I respect directing as a craft. I would never encroach on it.” For now, Waithe’s plans instead lean more towards creating another season. “I’m always planning on that. Let’s hope BET and the audience plans on it, too.”

Lena Waithe, Twenties
Twenties — Photo: BET

METRO WEEKLY: I’ll start by asking about a phrase that recently popped up on my radar, that we’re in the midst of a new Black TV renaissance. Is that a thing, and if so, where do you and your company Hillman Grad Productions fit into that?

LENA WAITHE: I don’t know. I think renaissances are always happening. And honestly, I can’t really say where we fit. I think that’s up to the people to decide. I think we’re doing our job. I think we’re just trying to keep things interesting and we’re never boring. I think that’s the goal: always be doing something that people don’t expect.

MW: That ties into Hillman Grad adapting the legendary documentary Hoop Dreams. There’s a lot of material to work with. What attracted you to the concept, and what do you plan to say with a scripted version of the story?

WAITHE: Well, we don’t want to try to duplicate what that was, because I don’t think you can. I think, ultimately, it’s really more about us capturing the spirit of what it meant to be, in the ’90s, young, Black, and with a dream and trying to accomplish it. So for us, it’s more about that. It’s more about trying to capture that energy, and then also show that when you’re a part of a marginalized community, oftentimes if you can’t run with a ball, or get a ball in the hoop, that you don’t really have any options.

I think Hoop Dreams is a documentary that still sticks with us is because, yes, it’s about two specific young, Black men growing up on the South Side of Chicago, but the truth is anybody can look at their stories and empathize. And our hope is to show the ’90s, Chicago, and how oftentimes these kids, they’re used like pawns in the grander scheme of things.

MW: Something really striking about Twenties is that, even though it’s a contemporary look at the industry, they’re all young people with old-fashioned, starry-eyed dreams of making it in Tinseltown, which is innocent. In general, do you think that innocence survives in Hollywood? Will it survive on Twenties?

WAITHE: No, innocence never survives, whether you’re in Hollywood or not, I think. But that’s what’s so great about the show. We hope to show how you can go from being wide-eyed and bushy-tailed to jaded and accomplished and successful. That’s really the journey. It’s about how do you maintain your enthusiasm, how do you not become jaded? Because the truth is that you’re never not jaded. You’re never not going to be jaded. You can’t help it — once something becomes your norm, it becomes your norm. And that’s all you can do, and it’s about how you keep it exciting, how you keep reinventing yourself.

Master of None, Lena Waithe, Naomi Ackie
Master of None: Lena Waithe, Naomi Ackie — Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

MW: And hold on to that authenticity, which is something that Hattie has, and that I think Jojo has, besides also being funny. She is a really unique lead of a show, both in how she looks and sounds. But Jojo hadn’t carried a series before, so what convinced you that she was the one for this show?

WAITHE: Well, I saw she was crowdfunding for a web series. And I donated, and something told me just get her on the phone and talk to her, and get a sense of what she was trying to do. And she says, “I’m trying to act.” Because I always ask people, “What is your ultimate end goal with the thing that you’re doing?” And she said, “Well the goal is to not turn this into a show. The goal is to get me into rooms.” And the truth is, oftentimes web series aren’t going to do that for you, a lot of times these days. Because web series were coming up when I was coming up. And now it’s TikTok, now it’s Instagram. So things are always ever changing.

And so that is another interesting thing we’re exploring is that the industry is always changing. So for me, doing a web series was a part of it. Now a young person probably won’t even know what that is, because that’s what happens, the business changes as you grow. With that being said, she was doing a web series at the time. I said, “Why don’t you come and audition for Twenties?” having no idea what it was going to lead to, not knowing what her skill set was. I wasn’t in the room when she auditioned but my casting director called me like, “Yo, the girl you sent us is great. She’s awesome, I really think she’s your girl.” And that’s what it was — it was really her being ready for that moment, and being herself in a way that I needed her to be, in a way that I needed to be myself when I was standing next to Aziz on Master Of None. So it really is a continuation of sort of passing the baton.

MW: The Twenties pilot episode opened with the theme from All About Eve, which is one of my favorite movies, so I knew I was in the right place. There’s a great sense of old-movie love. Are you a classic movie person?

WAITHE: Yes, I am. And I think what I like to do, too, is to show that all of my influences are all over the place and very different. I am the type of girl that will love Hoop Dreams but then also sit and watch All About Eve. And I think I’m not alone in that. I think that the idea that all Black artists only understand Black references, it’s like, “No.” Because also, too, if you go into some of Spike Lee’s references, who was his blueprint? He wanted to just study those greats that came before. And same thing with me, I wanted to just watch great, old movies, and still find them entertaining. And that’s why I think a big mission for me in my work is to not just make something that people will applaud right now, but I want to make work that people can say, “Let me go back and revisit that. Let me go back and look at that movie or that TV show and see how it plays now.” And the truth is I always want to be a person who has work that is debated but then also is revisited. And oftentimes if you aren’t debated, chances are they may not go back and revisit you.

Twenties, Lena Waithe
Twenties — Photo: BET

MW: A debate on this season of the show, one that I found really interesting, is about whether it’s better to find your soulmate or a good teammate. Can’t they be one and the same?

WAITHE: They can be, but sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes people are married to a person they’re not madly in love with, but they can live their lives with. And I don’t ever want to say that that’s bad. I think that’s their choice. Then there’s some people that you meet, and they’re madly in love and they’ve been together for 20 years, and they still get butterflies and that’s their story. Cool. But I think what I’m trying to say is that we don’t have to judge either or.

But also, too, I know that there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, it doesn’t exist. You can’t get everything from one person. If there’s a perfect couple, I’d love to meet them. So in essence, that’s also what we’re talking about, is that there’s no perfect way to go about it, but you’ve got to do what works best for you — not unlike Chuck and Marie, allowing Chuck to explore his sexuality. That’s what works for them, they’re the only two people in that couple. Now, Nia may not agree with that. Nia may not even want to marry Chuck if he came out as bisexual, but that’s Nia. And I think that’s also what we’re trying to say, is that a relationship is between two people and they’re the ones that get to make the decisions.

MW: That point comes across clearly. And I agree that what any two people should do is up to them. The story between Chuck and Marie definitively avoids making it a down-low situation, which I appreciated. How is the audience responding to that storyline?

WAITHE: Oh, they love it. They’re so excited that we’re exploring it. They love the fact that we aren’t doing the cliché down-low thing. But they’re also loving the fact that for the first time, and I haven’t really seen it in a long time, us exploring a Black man’s sexuality that doesn’t involve shame. And that the woman that he’s engaged to — and also their priest, who happens to be Black and non-binary — they’re saying, “Hey, Chuck, this is okay. It’s okay for you to not be sure. It’s okay for you to still be exploring. It’s okay for you to not have all the answers.” And so many people are like, “What? It is?” We’re saying that to the audience just as much as we’re saying it to Chuck. Which I’m excited about.

MW: Season one was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding comedy. Did you feel seen and supported by mainstream media, beyond LGBTQ-focused folks?

WAITHE: I definitely don’t think Twenties gets the attention it deserves. Something like Them: Covenant will be discussed more than Twenties. Why, I don’t know, but that’s not for me to discuss. Out here in the world, we have to ask ourselves why Them: Covenant gets discussed, but Twenties doesn’t. I can’t speak to it. But yes, there’s a queer, Black, masculine-presenting woman at the center of our show. Should it get more press? Absolutely. I can’t speak to why it doesn’t.

MW: I can’t either. But we interviewed Jojo for this magazine.

WAITHE: I appreciate that.

Master of None, Lena Waithe, Naomi Ackie
Master of None: Lena Waithe, Naomi Ackie — Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

MW: I want to ask you about Moments In Love. Which I’m just going to say is really beautiful. How did the decision go over with you, that the show would be shifting its focus from Dev to Denise and Alicia?

WAITHE: Well, I think what’s cool about Master of None, and what I think speaks to me as an artist about it, is that we don’t really have any rules, ever. And I think that me and Aziz had talked about like, “Oh, what if we do this?” And then we start writing it and then it happens. That’s really the experience, and we had such a good time doing season three, he was like, “Let’s just keep doing this, where we’ll go away then if something comes to us we’ll come back.” And what I love about Master Of None is we defy the genre. We’re not afraid to be more dramatic. We’re not afraid to shift the focus. We’re not afraid to do a whole episode that doesn’t follow the main character, like in I Heart New York, or whatever. We’re not afraid to do the thing that most people don’t want to do. And that, I think, is what makes the show special.

MW: Keeping on Denise and Alicia in Moments in Love, a line that Denise has about keeping love life and work life separate, some kind of balance, she says to Alicia, “Let’s keep it church and state. I won’t tell you how to do your things, you don’t tell me how to do mine.” Do you live by that motto?

WAITHE: Yeah. I think they go hand in hand. I think your love life affects your work life, whether you like to admit it or not, it just does. If your love life is not in great shape, you may be overworked, or even out of balance. I don’t believe I can answer that. It’s just every person has got to figure it out on their own. But for me, I think I have a nice balance.

MW: Now, another piece that really stuck with me is Queen & Slim. It made my Ten Best list for 2019 and something that was really important to me the year after Queen & Slim is how much I felt the movie spoke to 2020. Which is an amazing thing for a film to be so fluent in how it relates to events that follow afterwards. Did you think about it that way as the events of 2020 unfolded, or did that strike you at all?

WAITHE: It was definitely haunting to see the murals, for more reasons than one, especially when you would see the murals of George Floyd and Breonna next to each other. Even though I don’t believe their paths had ever crossed, but they represent a time for us. So yeah, I didn’t pick up on it until the movie would pop up on the trending list on iTunes. That’s when I was at home like everybody else, looking at iTunes, figuring out what I wanted to watch. And I would see the movie be up there in the top five. And I thought to myself, “Oh, people are going back and looking at it.” And I think what it speaks to is that it’s my job not just to be a writer but a citizen, to take note of history and to not erase it, ever. Because I think that’s what people would love to do: erase certain people from history, and to act as if certain things didn’t happen and to retell history. And I think that sometimes we can have a happy ending, but oftentimes it’s important to make sure no one can say something didn’t happen when it did.

MW: Unfortunately, now we’re living it and seeing it in real time, people want to tell us that history we saw didn’t happen. I’ve read about people being mad about how Queen & Slim ends. Is there anything that you would change about how the film’s story turns out?

WAITHE: No.

MW: All right. That relates to something that Denise says in Master Of None, that you can’t listen to the good that people say, and then just dismiss the criticism. So how do you process critical or negative responses to your work?

WAITHE: I don’t, because the work is the only thing that will remain. When I’m dead and gone, Queen & Slim‘s going to still be here. In 20 years, some person will watch it and form an opinion, and I won’t be here to debate it in 30, 40 years. I don’t know, maybe I’ll still be here in 20, but 50 years, it will still be here, it’s on celluloid.

MW: In the sense that any present-day criticism might influence your next acts, does it influence you?

WAITHE: The weird, interesting thing is I think we ask those questions now because people have microphones. Everybody has a microphone. But the truth is, there’s filmmakers before me when there wasn’t social media, you weren’t really able to affect their work because they didn’t know what you thought. So I think I have to act with that. I have to evolve as an artist, and not only give the audience what they think they want. Because did the audience know they wanted Get Out? Did the audience know they wanted Boyz n the Hood? Did the audience know they wanted Set It Off? Did the audience know they wanted any other number of movies that we watched and saw and loved, and moved us? No. That artist said, “I’m going to do this and y’all can take it or leave it.”

MW: I would agree with that, although I would challenge you with what you just said, that the industry changes. Part of the way the industry is changing, especially for showrunners these days, is the constant feedback from the viewership. Where does that go while you’re creating?

WAITHE: The truth is the only free space for a creative is when they’re creating. So, I would not want to be oppressed by anyone while I’m creating. That would be like me hovering over your shoulder as you wrote this piece, “Are you sure you want to write that?” “Hey, change that sentence.” “Hey, what about this?” So what happens is it’s no longer in your voice, it’s in mine. And what that does is, actually, it takes your voice away. And I’m a believer that your voice is just as important, is as valid, as mine.

MW: I agree with that, too. And I would hate anybody hovering over my shoulder.

WAITHE: Now imagine it being a whole sea of people.

MW: Okay, so with or without that sea of people, support and/or criticism, where do you want to take the Black TV renaissance?

WAITHE: The thing is you can’t take it anywhere. All I can do is write things that make sense to me and that move me, and if they move somebody else, then fantastic. But that really is how you have to be about yourself. If I put something out with hopes that people will like me, it probably won’t be very good. If I put something out that I like, chances are it’ll do okay. And that’s been the pattern so far. I have to like it, I have to think it’s interesting. Again, because everybody ain’t going to like what I like.

So I think that’s a weird thing to say, like, “Oh, someone criticized the work,” they’re supposed to. If you put five people in front of a Basquiat painting, you ain’t going to have all the same opinion. And guess what? Basquiat can’t hear none of us. But we can sit there and argue and debate all day long. But when we walk away, guess what? That painting is still going to remain on the wall. Not a stroke will change, the paint won’t move. It’s there. And guess what? If I come back and revisit that painting 20 years later, chances are I’ll see it differently.

MW: The art remains. “I said what I said,” right?

WAITHE: The work shouldn’t be affected by us. We should be affected by the work.

Twenties airs on BET and is available for streaming on Prime Video, Vudu, and YouTube.

Follow Twenties on Twitter at @TwentiesonBET.

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